Harriet Cleveland’s only crime has simply been having too little money.
First the Montgomery, Alabama resident got traffic tickets for falling behind on paying her car insurance while driving to and from her part-time job at a daycare and bringing her son to school. She paid half of her insurance bill, but she couldn’t afford to pay the remaining $97, and the only bus in her neighborhood is a four-block walk away and only runs every hour. Those tickets eventually led to a suspended driver license — something she only found out when she was stopped at a road block in her neighborhood and given even more tickets.
In all, she ended up accumulating more than a dozen traffic tickets, all of which came with fines she couldn’t afford to pay — a total of $2,500. “I didn’t have the funds to pay my tickets, I couldn’t afford to pay them,” she said. Around this time she lost her job and started relying on just $75 a week in unemployment benefits. So a judge ordered her to work with Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and pay $140 a month — $100 of which would go toward her fine, and $40 of which went to JCS’s coffers.
Every week she couldn’t pay that full amount she had to show up at their offices. “That was something hard for me to do,” she said. Most weeks she would bring $20, but sometimes she had nothing. At one point she took out a title loan on her car, which ended up with her losing possession of it. “That was my means of taking my son to school,” she said. “I had to try and get people to take him around.” At another point her electricity was cut off.
But she scraped together what she could, because the other option was being locked up. “I had to do what I had to do to keep from going back to jail,” she said.
Eventually, after two years of struggling to pay JCS what it demanded, Cleveland gave the company a lump payment of $2,000 from her tax returns. But after that, she said, she didn’t have anything more to pay them. That’s when she was arrested for nonpayment. She was brought in front of a judge, who sentenced her to 31 days in jail because she couldn’t immediately pay $1,500, despite her pleas to let her stay out and keep the new part-time job she had just found. “I didn’t expect they’d arrest people and put you in jail for tickets,” she said.
Stories like Cleveland’s have prompted action in Congress this week. Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), along with cosponsors Democratic Reps. John Conyers (MI), Shelia Jackson Lee (TX), Keith Ellison (MN), Barbara Lee (CA), and Hank Johnson (GA), have introduced a bill aimed at nudging municipalities away from using these private probation companies.
More than 1,000 courts around the country contract with private companies, which promise cities that they will recoup revenue from those who owe fines and fees on things like traffic tickets. Many cities see them as a good bargain because the companies don’t charge anything for their services. Instead, they tack on extra fees to the probationers themselves, often people who are too poor to pay what they owe in the first place. And they use the threat of jail to get people to comply.
“What struck me was how a fine that many of us would be able to pay off, whether $250 or $500, for a poor person could spiral into a greater level of debt and jail time,” Takano explained. “This seemed to me to be not just, not fair, and another example of how being poor in America is very expensive.”
This, as Sam Brooke, deputy legal director of the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, put it, creates a “quintessential two-tiered system of justice.” Those who have the money to pay off their fines and fees right away both avoid jail time and any of the extra fines that have to be paid to a private probation company like JCS. Those who don’t end up deeper in the hole.
To change this dynamic, Takano’s bill would withhold Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant funding, which goes to state and local governments to help fund law enforcement, from any municipality that contracts with a private probation company to collect fines from people who are only facing a financial penalty. “We don’t have the authority to just go and prohibit [private probation companies] and tell them what they can and can’t do,” Takano said. “We can encourage better behavior.”
Despite the financial lure of these private companies that promise greater revenue, losing out on federal money might change the equation. “These cities and towns would start to realize there is a real cost to the choice that they’re making,” Brooke said. “It’s giving them a little nudge of encouragement to say, if you want federal dollars to support your court…you really ought to be doing justice in a form that looks like justice.”
And even if some places still decide to contract with these companies, Brooke sees value in sending a message that the practice should change. “Even if it doesn’t change the incentive structure financially, at least it is putting a major spotlight on a glaring problem in our justice system, and one that can be fixed,” he said.
Another part of the bill is aimed at transparency. The fines and fees these companies asses “are often not very transparent,” Takano said. “They have advanced a propriety interest in keeping a lot of what they do secret and opaque.” His bill would require state and local governments to disclose their contracts with these private companies and any fees they collect.
“The financial incentive of for-profit companies runs counter to the even and fair application of justice,” Takano said. “And we have a duty to uphold equal justice for everybody.”
The other way to seek justice for the poor people who get stuck with private probation oversight is through lawsuits, as the SPLC and other groups have done, and force municipalities to stop the practice. That’s what happened in Montgomery with Cleveland’s case. After the organization, along with Equal Justice Under Law, brought a lawsuit on her behalf, the city decided to end its contract with JCS and said it would stop jailing people who can’t afford to pay fines and fees.
That’s made Cleveland somewhat of a local hero among other low-income residents who no longer have to fear going to jail because they can’t pay what they owe. “When people find out who I am, they thank me for doing that,” she said. “It’s a lot off their minds that they don’t have to be arrested for tickets.”
She supports Takano’s bill and any efforts to bring reform to the rest of the country. “I’d like to see that go nationwide, because it’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not fair to get locked up for tickets and let a private company come in and charge us. We can’t afford to pay these tickets, it shouldn’t be right.”
“We’re not criminals,” she said. “We just can’t afford to pay our tickets.”